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Yugoslavia: U.S. Warns Serbs Against Kosovo Offensive

Washington, 25 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The United States has warned Serbia against launching a spring military offensive in Kosovo, saying such a move would be a grave mistake.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told members of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday that Serbian troop movements indicate Belgrade has not given up on the idea of trying to crush the ethnic Albanians in the independence-minded province.

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Albright said the U.S. goal in the next two weeks is to make sure that the Serbs will abandon entertaining any idea of military action. The secretary of state said she wanted to convey an unambiguous warning to Belgrade on this matter.

Albright returned to Washington from France late Tuesday after negotiations between the Serb and Kosovo Albanians failed to produce a complete agreement on a plan for Kosovo autonomy and a NATO peacekeeping force. The two sides, however, made some progress and agreed to resume talks next month. Albright said:

"We did not reach full agreement, but we did hammer out a viable plan for autonomy and democracy in Kosovo through an interim political settlement. And we made progress on and clarified, although we didn't settle, the security issues."

Albright said Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic remains the chief obstacle to a settlement of the Kosovo conflict, in which an estimated 2,000 people have died in one year.

"The parties have agreed to meet again on March 15th. In the interim, we call upon both sides to refrain from acts of provocation and violence and to respect fully the security of the Kosovo verification mission. Officials in Belgrade know that NATO's authority to use force, if necessary, remains in effect."

Albright said the proposed interim agreement put forward by the so-called Contact Group nations is the best deal either side will get. Under the accord, Kosovo would have autonomy and 28,000 NATO peacekeeping troops, including about 4,000 Americans, would be stationed on the ground. Kosovo, with a population of 1.8 million ethnic Albanians, would remain part of Serbia.

"If a settlement does occur, the United States will participate with NATO and its partners in implementing it. There are compelling reasons for this. Kosovo lies within the Balkans, where there is no natural border to conflict. A new explosion of fighting in Kosovo could expand into regional hostilities that could cause massive suffering, displace tens of thousands of people, undermine civility throughout South-Central Europe, and directly affect our key allies."

Albright described Kosovo as a critical test for NATO and other institutions promoting security and stability in Europe.

"If we fail in our resolve, we will weaken the institutions we rely upon, not only in the Balkans, but also throughout the continent. That is a weakness we cannot risk and must not allow."

Albright said peace must have a chance in Kosovo.

"The people of Kosovo, whether ethnic Albanian, Serb or other, deserve to live in democracy and peace. They deserve to have their rights and heritage respected. And I'm convinced that by far the majority of respected leaders within the Kosovar Albanian community support the interim agreement we proposed and they helped to refine."

She reiterated the U.S. position that NATO would strike Serb military targets if Milosevic frustrates a final peace agreement.

"It was his brutal campaign of repression that gave birth to the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army), and it was at his orders that so much of the worst violence and suffering has occurred. Milosevic no longer has a choice. If the Kosovar Albanians accept the interim agreement, Milosevic must too or face the consequences."

President Bill Clinton said at the White House late Wednesday that the Serbs do not want to accept the presence of NATO troops in the country because they see it as a violation of their sovereignty. But Clinton said large-scale and violent suppression of a people is not just an internal matter.

Clinton said that the United States for decades has sought a democratic, peaceful and united Europe. He said that with the end of the Cold War, that aim has been achieved. But Clinton added, events in the Balkans can undermine this achievement.